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A Duty To Protect

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The Idaho Supreme Court has ruled in a case involving a teenager's suicide that school districts in the state have a legal duty to prevent foreseeable harm to students.

In August, the court reinstated a lawsuit filed by James and Diane Brooks, the parents of a teenager who killed himself in 1991. The Brooks argued that their son's English teacher at Meridian High School should have warned them or school authorities that the boy had expressed suicidal thoughts in a class journal. The parents sued the teacher and the Meridian district for negligence.

The teacher, Laura Logan, said in court papers that she had stopped reading students' journals early in the academic year and merely checked to ensure students wrote in them regularly. She turned over the student's journal, which included several passages alluding to death and suicide, to the parents after the boy's death.

A lower court issued a summary ruling in favor of the teacher and district, agreeing that school officials were not responsible for protecting the boy from suicide. The judge also ruled that even if Logan had read the journal, she had no legal duty to take action.

The state high court reversed that decision based on the key issue of whether the school district had a duty to protect its students. In its ruling, the court said the Idaho legislature had created a "statutory duty which requires a school district to act reasonably in the face of foreseeable risks of harm'' to students. The court said the district could be held liable if it failed to take action when faced with evidence that a student was contemplating suicide, even if the suicide takes place off school grounds.

The court ruled that a jury must decide the factual questions of whether Logan read the student's journal before he committed suicide and whether she could have detected his suicidal thoughts if she had read it. The case will return to the lower court for a jury trial.

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